This is a novel that you will either love or hate. Right now you're thinking: really, wow, no kidding! in the most sarcastic form of thinking you can muster. But I mean what I write. This is certainly a polarising novel. The format, the ideas, the political agenda and the very writing will either sit easily with you and you will appreciate the effort and ingenuity of Max Brooks or you will hate the novel and see it as another lame zombie novel which aims to be smarter than it is. I clearly sit in the 'loved-it camp'. I absolutely adored, was creeped out by and found this an intelligent and well written read. Which probably has something to do with my expectations of the novel as well as the novel itself.
You see, I've never been a fan of the trend towards using zombies as villains. I mean, you've seen one zombie and you've seen the whole zombie horde right? Sure zombies are fun to blast to pulp in video games and they make for entertaining mindless minions on a cinema screen, but in terms of movie and literature monsters they've never made the grade for me. Ghosts, wraiths, vampires, werewolves and the Elder Gods have all featured on my radar but zombies have always been in the background for me. That is until reading World War Z.
It is a credit to Max Brooks then, that he was able to draw me in with his use of zombies as the main monster. Because unlike typical cheap monster novels, using zombies as throw away critters that want to eat your brains, Brooks has a point to utilising zombies. Yes, there is always a point to using any monster in literature I admit but Brooks moves beyond the simple scare-tactics and appeal to the 'coolness' of monsters. Brooks uses zombies because through them he can focus on the socio-political idea of those individuals within our societies who become zombie-like. Those who become the living dead.
Zombies, ghouls, the undead. These all become more than cathartic ways to ease our own fears. They become metaphors for the ways in which humanity responds to itself. Brooks is essentially telling and prophesying an idea I've long believed in: that mankind's greatest threat is not some apocalypse triggered by a freak natural disaster or cosmic event. No mankind's greatest threat lies internally, in how we respond nationally to one another and how we treat our neighbours. Essentially, through telling a gripping story, Brooks is referencing how politics, societies, cultures and everything that makes us human can be turned against us because of one of the most primal of weapons - fear. When humans fear it leads to unconditional and illogical responses, some might say mindless zombie responses.
So many ideas, from refugees/asylum seekers to politics to the various conflicts in our increasingly globalised world are touched on in this novel. The most chilling factor in my mind is not that you have zombies formed from reanimated human bodies but that Brooks has written something which feels so...real. The level of research and detail plugged into this novel is staggering to the point where it reads like an event that actually happened. And that is the most chilling thing of all. Beyond the zombies and the blood, guts and battle sequences, the most chilling factor is clearly the human factor drawn from the realistic depictions of humans in a battle against an enemy unlike any other.
What Max Brooks does in this is write something so solid it feels like a novel made up of interviews with different real characters. Sure, every so often I noted the similarities between the overall narrative voice, but then the interviewed individual added something in his dialogue that made him stand as a unique story. And every single interview ran the same kind of way. Were there some stories I cared less for? Perhaps, but those stories still added to the weird realistic tone of the novel. Which is odd to talk about since we're talking about a zombie apocalypse and realism together in one novel. Did I care for all the political satirising or the messages that were trying to be spread? Perhaps not. Did I care for some of the biases that were on display because of the author? Maybe not. But did I believe this was a well constructed and brilliant novel? That's a definitive yes.
So if you're tired of reading monster stories with cheap, thrill seeking narratives, I recommend trying something a little deeper such as this. It could very well become the zombie equivalent of Dracula or Frankenstein, as big a claim as that is. It may not be as classically written but it is very well devised and it is smart. Basically if I had to explain it it would be to say that it feels like a series of historical interviews with a 'human edge'. One of the final parts of this book is to look at the impact of the war on survivors, which is one of the more interesting aspects of this book.
In short it's a history book for a history that never happened. So it's a brutally honest novel in that regard (from the author's perspective and through the eyes of multiple imagined characters). It's a novel that uses a zombie war to look at the impact of other previous wars (and in many ways seems to look at modern conflicts like Afghanistan or Iraq - or previous wars like the ever unpopular Vietnamese War). It may not be to your taste, to read such a raw and realistic novel, but I don't think anyone can deny that it's a strong effort by the author and definitely I fully recommend it as a novel to read. And I would add that it certainly is not beyond anyone to read as a novel, because I myself may have snobbishly thought I wouldn't like a novel about zombies. And how wrong was I?